With Friday night’s Play-In finale pitting the New Orleans Pelicans against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Suns opponent in the first round of the 2022 Playoffs will be intimately familiar with the top-seeded Phoenix Suns and will know how to defend their favorite shots.
The Pelicans are coached by Willie Green, who was the Suns lead assistant the prior two seasons, including through the Finals run. Suns head coach Monty Williams admits they are extremely close friends, and often credits Green for helping architect the Suns offensive and defensive schemes. That kind of familiarity gives the Pelicans an edge over most other teams because not only does Green see the film, he also knows what all went into each play and what other options the Suns had before and after the shot they actually took.
The Clippers were the Suns opponent in the Western Conference Finals last year, so they know all the Suns wrinkles too. Both teams have the same core players as a year ago, and it was a very competitive series. The Clippers’ wing-loaded defense, starting with Nic Batum’s incredibly long arms blocking Chris Paul’s view of the floor, frustrated the Suns offense. They don’t have Patrick Beverley to piss everyone off anymore, but now have even more big wing defenders by adding Robert Covington and Norm Powell to the mix.
In the Suns favor, their offense this year (5th ranked vs. 7th ranked) is better than what Clippers coach Ty Lue tried to beat in the WCF and what Willie Green helped coach. Deandre Ayton, Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges all have bigger roles and can create their own shot on occasion, which was not the case a year ago. Jae Crowder has added a reliable step-in floater. And the Suns backup bigs are better at pressuring the rim.
Still, it’s important to get an early jump in a series — the Suns won Game 1 in all four series last year — and the Suns opponent will be more familiar with them than you might hope in Round 1.
For now, during this off week while the Play-In tourney happens, the Suns are preemptively ‘self-scouting’ and adding new wrinkles to their offense that no one has seen before.
“I told the guys we want to get two or three wins these next three days,” Williams said. “And a lot of that is based on a self-scout. We don’t know who we are going to play, so we might as well dive into who we are and how we can get ready.”
Backup point guard Cameron Payne is back at practice, affording the Suns relatively clean health heading into the most important stretch of their careers.
“It’s feeling good,” Payne said after practice. “I’m fine, knee’s fine.”
Williams said he saw Payne’s familiar ‘bounce’ back, while Payne says he’s working on getting more and more comfortable on the knee, which felt weak in a game last week and prompted the Suns sit him a few games.
The Suns don’t have to file a fresh injury report until Saturday, but Payne was the only injured player heading into the final regular season game last Sunday.
Williams was his usual humble self when asked about winning the Coach of the Year award from his peers in the NBA Coaching Association (the 30 NBA head coaches).
“In my opinion, the Coach of the Year is the award that exemplifies the organization and the team more than anything,” Williams said.
The Suns will only know their opponent a day before they have to start the series, but I guess that’s no different than any subsequent series will be. The nature of the playoffs is not knowing your opponent, or even prepping for one, until a day or two before the series begins.
“We’re in a good place mentally,” Monty Williams said. “And we’ll be ready to go on Sunday.”
The Playoffs begin this weekend with eight matchups over Saturday and Sunday. Around the West, the Mavericks face the Jazz, the Nuggets face the Warriors and the Grizzlies face the Wolves. That’s crazy to think two of Mavs/Jazz/Nuggets/Warriors won’t even make it past the first round this year. The Suns and Grizzlies will be heavy favorites in their series.
The Suns will play in the last game on Sunday night, followed by game 2 on Tuesday with both games at home at Footprint Center. They take to the road again next weekend for games 3 and 4 on Friday and Sunday, either in LA or New Orleans.